Interview: Helping Youth and Families Develop Psychological Resiliency

Nicole Perryman is the clinical director and social worker (psychotherapy) of Aset Group Consulting and Counselling Services, a private practice in Durham Region that specializes in working with youth, families and individuals. She is an avid member of her community and advocates for the need for mental wellness and resiliency programs for youth and families in that region. She runs programs and provides mentorship opportunities to help build young people’s capacity to achieve positive outcomes for themselves through her community organization, the Ifarada Institute.

Can you introduce yourself and share a bit about the services you offer at Aset Counselling?

My approach is to focus on the client’s well-being, social support, finances, life and career goals. So looking at the whole person and the whole picture and supporting around making some changes and developing strategies to manage what they are going through.

When I was working in the field, I started a girls’ group with one of my employers and just continued it and that was the main thing I did with youth to bring them together. I found that when they had a group of other youth that had gone through the same thing, they found that they had a connection and they felt that other people were going through the exact same thing they were and so it built their advocacy, confidence and self-esteem. I wanted to be able to provide that for youth, so that is the reason for this focus on youth in my career.

What is the “Nia Gwenda Program”? How have you seen this impact the lives of girls and their families?

It varies. Some of the girls that I’ve worked with are girls who were in foster care for years and don’t have a sense of belonging or don’t have a connection with anyone. Many of them don’t have friends. So it’s been helpful to them to be able to develop friendship. For other youth, it’s been helpful in terms of teaching them strategies to deal with anxiety or social media and drama that happen among their peers.

I’ve also had youth who were involved in human trafficking, so helping them to see a way out of their lifestyle and connect with other girls who don’t particularly have that experience, but maybe (are) on the cusp, they feel that might be an option for them. So giving them advice around that lifestyle.

Can you tell me why building a strong support network can be helpful for youth dealing with depression?

With depression and anxiety, people tend to isolate themselves a lot. Try to keep to themselves. And they always have this negative self-talk around: they’re not good enough, no one is going to like them, people are going to think they’re weird, people are going to bully them. So being in a safe place of even that one-to-one counselling relationship or within a group, they’re getting that validation and a lot of those beliefs are being struck down and their feelings of isolation are changing. Some group members have felt comfortable to disclose very personal experiences in group therapy, such as sexual abuse, sexual identity and more. So it does wonders in terms of changing their life and their outcome.

What has been your experience when it comes to the response of the faith community on the topic of mental challenges?

Sometimes people come to me in church and say: “We’ll just pray it away.” Or, “We’ll lay hands on the person and make it all better.” This is not always effective. So it isolates and silences them even more. Other churches have leaders who provide counselling, so they have been able to connect with people who are struggling and provide them with the needed resources.

The best way the faith community can support a person with mental challenges is to first recognize their expertise. So if they’re not skilled at counselling or they’re not identifying depression, being able to connect with other community members and calling on them for support. So just because you’re a pastor or leader in the church doesn’t mean that you’re skilled in counselling someone with depression or marital issues or anxiety. Being able to recognize that first and developing a network among other clinicians and counsellors in their community that may be able to support the family is huge.

The other piece is making sure they have a safe place and that there are lots of programs and activities that will help bring them out of their isolation. Making sure they have Bible study groups or after-school programs for teens. Those things are huge in helping them get out of their isolation and connect with other people.

At a church one of the individuals I worked with was attending, a speaker there presented a talk about sexual abuse and helping young people identify trauma and supporting people who have had trauma. That session was huge for her because it was the first time she ever felt comfortable to disclose her own experiences and her own difficulty. It’s part of the holistic care and coming to embrace being part of a community that cares about you.

In your expert opinion, where does the stigma surrounding depression stem from?

Throughout history, people who had mental challenges were viewed as being “crazy” or were seen to be “dealing in witchcraft.” Each culture has their own connection. As a black woman, my connection is the slavery piece and women were meant to be strong and they weren’t to appear to be weak or that they were having difficulties. When they didn’t, it was a sign that they were weak or that they were cursed. I think that is where a lot of it comes from within our community. But other cultures have similar stories.

I also think that there are not enough resources. Someone could say that they have depression and their family could be supportive, but then they don’t have the treatment to get the necessary help. So that creates barriers. Personally, I think it’s more about those barriers than it is about the stigma. I think the system needs to come together in terms of dealing with the barrier-piece and making sure that people have access to mental health resources.

What is the best way that we can offer support to youth dealing with mental challenges?

Number one is that, even though they look grown and they try to act like they’re grown, they’re still children. They don’t have the skill set to always meet our expectations. For young people, relationship is huge. Develop key relationships with them. Get to know them, their interests and what their history is like. Provide a space to listen to them. When behavioural issues come up, not making assumptions about where they come from.

A lot of the time, their behaviour comes from fear, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, bullying; it comes from somewhere. Taking the time to investigate where it comes from is more helpful than not doing that. Also, be realistic with them. I get a lot of young people who get anxiety because they think they have to be perfect and strive to meet their parents’ overly high expectations.

What are some signs of depression that may reveal themselves, especially in youth?

It has to be a prolonged period of longer than two weeks, which is a huge distinction. Also, there are little signs that give it away, like they’re not spending time with their friends, not eating or eating too much, spending lots of time in their room, being moody or grumpy, not doing well in school, wanting to skip school or not going to classes, using drugs or drinking, too.

A bad grade on a test for someone going through depression is like the end of the world and they feel that they’ll never get better. They make it greater than what it really is. It’s hard to shift the mind, because how do you prove differently to them if their mind is stuck in a certain way? It’s all-or-nothing thinking. They worry about everything, how people are going to see them and they worry about what they’re wearing. Everything.

For more information on Aset Group Consulting and Counselling Services, please visit their website at www.asetgroup.ca.

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